It has been a while since my last blog so I thought I might jot down some thoughts about my latest trip to Tehran, Iran. I thought you might be interested to hear about the food. Unfortunately, much of the news from the states is not favorable to Iran politically but I rarely hear or see anything in the news regarding beautiful cultural aspects of Iran. It is a lively and magical place. The people love foreigners, love life, and are known for their hospitality, art, and architecture just to name a few.
I have been traveling to Iran on and off for the past 20 years but this trip was especially exciting for me. I met with some brilliant nutritionist I connected with on LinkedIn. Doctoral students, department heads, MD’s, and international food experts. We had many wonderful discussions about international food politics and most importantly, differences and similarities of the typical American and Iranian diets and lifestyle.
Both countries deal with pollution and environmental contamination. GMO’s seeds are not used much in Iranian crops but they do import GMO crops such as corn, soy, and products that contain GMO ingredients like convenience, packaged foods. They use pesticides as much of the world but try to do periodic testing on the more staple crops such as rice for safety. There is something different about the wheat in Iran. For some reason I can tolerate the Iranian, hot, fresh breads but when I get home I cannot eat wheat products.
This trip I noticed a little more obesity in the children especially but not typical or near the epidemic we have in the states or other western countries. It might be related to technology, lack of exercise and of course eating more processed foods (which could contain GMO ingredients such as HFCS, empty calories). Iran schools are focused more scholastic rather than PE. In the US school PE programs have been cut way back when they used to be a requirement.
Some reasons Iranians do not have as much obesity is they still eat a diet rich in microbiome nourishing foods. Fermented foods and yogurt are staples in the diet. Current research is showing a healthy microbiome is directly related to healthy weight. And the foods we feed our microbiome are just as important.
Another factor could be the altitude (around 4000 feet about sea level and higher if you get on the side of the mountain) and the amount of walking people do. We are very spread out in the states so walking to the grocery store is not always an option. Tehran has millions of cars, but easy and affordable public transportation makes getting around easy. The city is vast in size but there is convenient access to fresh foods in every neighborhood. There are large and small parks everywhere. Most parks have ping pong tables and training equipment along the paths such as leg presses, lat pulldowns, sit-ups, etc. In the evenings and on weekends the parks are swarming with families. Living in Tehran with its hills, stairs and different city surfaces is like an Olympic sport .
As far as the food differences Iran still doesn’t have the huge convenience food and fast food business’s we have in the states therefore many traditional foods are still the mainstay. Yogurt, feta cheese, rice, fresh herbs, fresh produce, and fermented foods. And nuts particularly walnuts are daily staples the Iranian diet. They also eat a lot of kabob in the form of lamb, beef, fish, and chicken, when served in restaurants are garnished with grilled tomatoes, fresh onions, torshi (fermented and pickled vegetables, olives, garlic, carrots, cucumber, beets to name a few), and fresh veggies. Other dishes are various stews and soups with lentils, fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit.
Tehran the capitol is very large (8.5 million people live there and an estimated 8 million more come in for work). Each neighborhood has convenience stores, fresh produce stands, and at least one bread store that makes fresh Sangak (my favorite), lavash, and barbari. Many neighborhoods have local pharmacies, health clinics, and café’s.
For years I have wondered why the eggs were so yellow and fresh. For one thing, they add zeaxanthin a form of carotenoid to their feed gives them a more yellow color. A kind of enrichment. Eggs are not refrigerated in the stores and can purchase them by the egg. Each egg is stamped with the date. Milk tastes different and I really couldn’t get an understanding of why but they use the same pasteurization we use here. It does spoil faster and I don’t know why but it tastes wonderful.
Spices are used in daily dishes such as saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and Adiveh which is a blend of spices. There are shops devoted to different specialty foods, spices, nuts, yogurt, and fermented foods.
A difference that really stood out to me was the fact that people as least everyone I know, gathered to share every meal. It is not customary to start the meal until everyone is present. The table set (not formally always) but people shared the food. Talking, laughing, sharing and sometimes arguing but no TV, no phones at the table. That is yet another habit that can discourage overeating. I miss that now that I am home.
The last thing was the entertaining. Iranian women and men don’t prepare one dish when they have guests! It is at least 5. A custom I am happy is not a part of my immediate culture. We serve maybe a snack, the main meal, and a dessert. Whew. I did enjoy the food too much.
The cancer rate in Iran is low compared to the US where we lose over a half million people a year and it is the second leading cause of death. Iran is starting to see cancer deaths rise but maybe some of the reasons cancer is not as prevalent could be the foods, activity, altitude. sense of culture, and their philosophy of life.
My husband of 38 years came to the US after an Olympic soccer career in 1975 to get his master’s and PhD. I married into a large family of gifted and extraordinary educators, sculptors, painters, musicians, designers, architects, and business talents. I try to visit every 1 or 2 years.
This was kind of my Anthony Bordain or Rick Steve’s version of Iran. Of course these videos are outdated. Iran is much more relaxed these days. Even though it is a tough and long trip, I feel cleansed and relaxed when I come back home to Texas. The culture is friendly, meditative and very poetic. There are an estimated 1 million Iranian Americans so if you get the opportunity, try the food!